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Month: July 2019
The Word Heathen – How Context Matters
So this meme recently crossed my feed, and it annoyed me. Greatly.
(Any areas in red, are items I’ve edited on the original meme, because I don’t want the original meme as it was to be shared anymore).
I’m going to ignore the surprise bitch aspect (I don’t think it’s helpful in terms of getting others to learn about us by being disrespectful like this, even though my inner snark can appreciate it). That’s not what irked me. What irked me here is the use of the phrase “godless heathen,” which is deeply problematic.
The ancient followers and believers of the old Gods of Germany, Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England did not have a name that they called their religion because their religious identity was simply part of their cultural identity. It wasn’t until Christianity encroached on these ancient polytheistic cultures that the term Heathen (used by the 4th Century Christian Goth Ulfilas in his translation of the Bible) was first employed to distinguish between Christians and the ‘other’. It is believed that Ulfilas was inspired to follow the example the Romans had created when they termed the word pagan. Ulfilas’ use of the term heathen in his translation of the Bible would trickle down the centuries until the word was used in various Viking Age sagas later.
Through the centuries since, the terms pagan and heathen have in the common vernacular become somewhat interchangeable, and the meaning has shifted and changed. Christians later used the term to describe any non-Christian people regardless of geographic location, and eventually the word was stripped of even religious connotation in some usages to merely refer to something that is strange or uncivilized. Today there is a movement of some modern-day practitioners trying to reclaim the original definition of the term Heathen and using it to name their collective religious identity as Heathenry, of which I am one. I’m not godless, I am one who has and venerates many Gods and Goddesses. The words and context of how we use those words matter.
The word anathema is used today, perverted by Christianity, to refer to something that is: horrible, malevolent, abominable, abhorrently evil. But the word comes from pre-Christian times, and meant something completely different. Anathema derives from Ancient Greek: ἀνάθεμα, anáthema, meaning “an offering” or “anything dedicated”. So this is a term used in connection with votive offerings, sacred devotion and dedication. Of course Christianity would vilify proper sacred devotions to the Gods and Goddesses as it was in direct opposition to their worldview. Hel originally meant the underworld (literally where the dead dwell, the earth), personified and deified by the Goddess of the same name. It etymologically also has connotations to the word hall, so the hall of the dead is a derivative meaning as well. Christianity stole the term and made it a term of negativity when spreading their doctrine. They turned it into a place of evil.
I understand the intent of the meme, but especially within the non-Christian spheres where pagans and polytheists all dwell and identify with, I’m disappointed to see the Christian definition and phrase “godless heathen” being used as it perpetuates Christianity’s erosion of these old and sacred traditions and religions; it continues the malignant stereotype. Even in a way that is mocking Christianity here, why are we still using the “godless heathen” phraseology of the religious oppresor that has done all they can to destroy us?
A “godless heathen” is a phraseology that is uniquely Christian in its origins. The phrase carries with it connotations to an uncivilized barbarian lacking of any religious mores or values, in other words an unintelligent inferior, someone not worthy because they do not acknowledge the God of Christianity as the one and only god. This sort of phraseology and attitude has been used as justification for the genocide of indigenous (and polytheistic) religions around the world.
Part of the church’s Discovery Doctrine that led to the Catholic Church’s genocide of millions globally and led to slavery (from Africa, to other non-Christian populations around the world, including the enslavement of First Nations People sold into slavery in Albuquerque’s Old Town). An attitude that led to the Mission School System and places like the Carlisle Boys School. For those unfamiliar with the Mission School system, the church ran schools determined to beat the non-Christian out of their students which meant horrible mental and physical abuse, resulted in the theft of land and property and did in fact result in the death of untold vast numbers. The mission schools represented the death of a culture: both physically and spiritually and is something the Catholic Church engaged in for about 500 years across the globe. The genocidal tendencies of the church to the First Nation Peoples of the Americas was just as devastating as the holocaust was to the Jews.
Phraseology of godless heathen, from the past to the modern era, has been used both directly and indirectly in various attitudes to justify forced conversion, the trail of tears/the long walk (and similar incidents), the aforementioned mission school system, land grabs, taking indigenous children from their parents (which still happens). Phraseology like these are behind attitudes that help to make Native American women the most preyed upon population in the U.S., 4 out of 5 will be the victims of violence, with a murder rate 10 times that of the US average for women who aren’t Native.
In other areas of the world the Church attacked the old polytheistic traditions too. Most pagans and polytheists are at least somewhat familiar with how that manifested in our religious traditions. For Northern Tradition polytheists, or Heathens, we know that the church canonized as Saint Olaf, the late King of Norway, Olaf II Haraldsson, who is credited as making Norway completely Christian. In fact if you look at the Heimskringla, aka the Sagas of the Norse Kings, the deeds of pagan killing is essentially bragged about in the annals of history. Famously, one of our martyrs of the Northern Tradition, Olvir of Egg, was executed by him. His story can be found in Óláfs saga helga.
Words matter, and how we use those words matter. Pagans and polytheists are attacked so much from the outside, we shouldn’t be doing the work of those who would destroy us by calling ourselves godless, when we are blessed with an abundance of deities.
I’m going to leave you with a song, “We are Heathens”, performed and re-branded to a Heathen religious bent by Karl Donaldsson. It’s sung to the tune of the song “They’ll Know We Are Christians”by Peter Scholtes. The lyrics seem uniquely apt to this post, you can listen here: https://youtu.be/hUkL8J5STV0
And they’ll know we are heathens by our might and our main,
And they’ll know what heathen means by the name.
We are brave men and women, courage worn like a shield
We will slay our foes and leave their bodies in the field
And we’ll make sure that our kin are all safe and healed
We are honest with others; to the gods, we are Tru
When we speak, there is no doubt as to what we will do
Honest words can bring you close to your kin, too
We will live with honor, we have nothing to hide
The worth of our ancestors was judged when they died
We will save women’s dignity and honor men’s pride
We will demonstrate loyalty to gods and to man
Forging bonds of fidelity wherever we can
And some day our deeds will be sung by our clan
We will make a place for visitors to our stead
We will share our ale and we will share our bread
And tonight, you must stay inside, in our spare bed
Our minds will be focused, like a wielded sword
Our hearts act as one, as our bodies’ ward
Over each one’s existence there is only one lord
We will work with each other, we will work side by side
Younger hands will be influenced by older hands’ guide
And together, the work we’ve done will aid others’ lives
We rely on each person to bear his own weight
He will hold up his end making his worth great
And together we become the masters of our fate
We stand strong in the face of adversity
We are stone in the path of instability
Persevere, now, to make it so our folk remain free
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